The Temples in Jerusalem
Tisha b’Av commemorates a number of national tragedies, including the destruction of both Temples. On this page, learn about the construction of the first and second Temples and the events surrounding their destruction, according to biblical and talmudic accounts.
On this page:
The First Temple
The Temple was built in the time of King Solomon. Solomon was the son of King David, who had conceived the idea of building a Temple for God.
Construction of the First Temple
The Bible tells us of the construction of this Temple in the Book of I Melachim (I Kings). Interestingly, whereas the Tabernacle was built totally by the Jewish people with materials contributed by the Jewish people, the first person that Solomon turns to when discussing his great project is Hiram, king of Tyre.
There is good reason for this. Hiram was in possession of rare forests, the majestic cedars of Lebanon, and cypress trees that were unequalled anywhere in the world. They would be perfect for construction of a structure that Solomon wanted to be not only one of the wonders of the world but also a resting place for the Divine Presence.
Solomon told Hiram that David, whom Hiram had loved, had wanted to build a Temple but had not been allowed to do so because of all the wars in which he’d been involved. But now G-d had granted Solomon all the ingredients for success: great wisdom, great riches and, above all, peace on all his borders, which would allow him to apply all his energy to its construction.
They agreed that Hiram would supply Solomon with cedar and cypress timber and Solomon would supply Hiram with vast amounts of foodstuffs. And Hiram’s unmatched woodcutters would cut down and ship the timber to Israel.
Solomon also levied a tax on the Jewish people to provide 30,000 laborers on a rotating basis, to assist Hiram, 70,000 to bear burdens and 80,000 to do quarry work.
As the completion of the construction approached, God came to Solomon and said, “If you will not forsake My Torah, I will invest My Presence in your Temple and I will not abandon the people of Israel.”
When all the work was done, Solomon had the Ark of the Covenant brought up from the City of David, where it had been reposing. Then, amid a ceremony involving the sacrificing of untold numbers of sacrifices, Solomon reminded the people that it was his father David whose idea he had brought into reality.
"Solomon Dedicates the Temple at Jerusalem" by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (c. 1896-1902)
Solomon blessed the people and promised that he would observe the condition that had been set for the permanency of the Temple; namely, that he and the people would not forsake the Torah.
He prayed to God, “But will God in truth dwell on the earth? Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You, how much less this house that I have built!…But may Your ‘eyes’ be open towards this place night and day…to hearken unto the prayer that Your servant shall offer towards this place…May You hear in Heaven Your dwelling place, and when You hear, forgive” (1 Melachim 8:27-30).
Destruction of the First Temple
According to the Talmud (Yoma 4b), the reason for the destruction of the first Temple was the pernicious and ineradicable performance of the following catalogue of sins: idol-worship, sexual immorality, and bloodshed.
This was despite the warnings delivered by prophet after prophet until we are told in the Book of Yirmiyahu that the prophet has been instructed to tell Tzidkiyahu, the last king of Judah, that there will be no escape from Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, who will burn Jerusalem with fire.
In 586 BCE., some 420 years after the first Temple was built, the prophecy of destruction was realized. The prophet who was an eyewitness to the tragedy describes it in Eicha (Lamentations):
How does the city sit solitary, that was full of people!
How is she become as a widow!
She that was great among the nations,
And princess among the provinces,
Has become a handmaiden! (Eicha 1:1)
and further, as the prophet speaks of God, Who is now, as a last resort, punishing His wayward children,
I am the man that has seen affliction
By the rod of his wrath.
He has led me and caused me to walk
In darkness and not in light.
Surely against me He turns His hand
Again and again all the day.
My flesh and my skin has He worn out;
He has broken my bones (Eicha 3:1-4)
"Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem" by Rembrandt, 1630.
The Second Temple
Construction of the Second Temple
The prophet Yirmiyahu had received a prophecy that the exile following the destruction of the first Temple would be relatively short (compared to the approximate 2,000 year-long exile we’re still in): namely, 70 years. Various heads of empires kept getting into trouble because of miscalculating these years.
When the time came for the exile to be over, the Jews found themselves subject to one of the world empires with whom they would contend and outlast, the Persian empire. In order to be able to rebuild the Temple, they needed the permission of a foreign ruler, a step down in their autonomy. However, God had been good to them and had caused the Purim story to happen; aside from saving the Jewish people and having them renew their covenant with Him, the Purim story also put in place a Persian ruler – Cyrus by name – from the family of Esther, who was favorable to the idea of rebuilding the Temple.
Of course, the Jews needed not only the permission of the Persians to rebuild; they also needed God’s permission. However, it seems that the Jews had gotten too comfortable with their position in exile and were not in a rush to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. Therefore, God said through Haggai, one of the twelve “minor” prophets:
“Thus says Hashem, the Lord of Hosts: Pay attention to your ways. You have sown much and brought in little. You eat, but you don’t have enough. You drink, but you are not filled with drink. You clothe yourselves, but you are not warm. And he that earns wages earns them for a bag with holes.
“Thus says the Lord of Hosts: Consider your ways. Go up to the hill country, and bring wood, and build the house; and I will take pleasure in it, and I will be glorified, says the Lord. You looked for much, but I made it little; and when you brought it home, I blew upon it. Why? said the Lord of Hosts. Because of My house that lies waste, while you run every man for his own house….” (Haggai 1:5-9)
They eventually got the movement going and rebuilt the Temple, working under Nechemia. This was a time of Jewish renewal under the leadership of Ezra, who is said to have been comparable to Moses in his leadership ability.
Destruction of the Second Temple
The Greeks arrived with Alexander the Great around 333 BCE. Assimilation eventually became a major problem and the “Hellenized” Jews desecrated the Temple. In 165 BCE, the Maccabees, under the leadership of Matityahu and Judah and his brothers, enabled the Jews to rededicate the Temple.
At this point, Judaism began to flourish. The Romans arrived soon after and the pressure against the Jews to abandon the Torah became so great that the Oral Law had to be written down. This entire time, the Temple was standing and functioning, albeit with flaws.
It was not idolatry, sexual immorality or violence that brought down the second Temple as they did the first. Rather, it was a deep societal problem described as “sinat chinam,” baseless hatred of one person for another. The Talmud gives several specific examples of this self-destructive society in tractate Gittin (55b- 57b). The most well-known incident is known as the affair of Kamtza and Bar Kamzta:
There was a certain individual who was friendly with Kamtza, but who was an enemy of Bar Kamtza. He made a feast and said to his servant, “Go and bring Kamtza to my feast,” but the servant brought Bar Kamtza instead.
The one who made the feast found Bar Kamtza seated there. He said to him, “Since you are my enemy, what are you doing here? Get up and get out!” Bar Kamtza said, “Since I’m here already, let me stay, and I will pay you for what I eat and drink.”
The host responded, “No!”
“I will pay for half the cost of the feast.”
“I will pay the entire cost of the feast!”
“No!” He seized Bar Kamtza, stood him up, and threw him out!
Bar Kamtza thought, “Since the Rabbis were there, saw the whole thing, and did not protest, obviously they had no objection to my embarrassment! I’ll go now and have a little feast of slander with the king.”
Bar Kamtza went to the Caesar and declared, “The Jews have rebelled against you!”
The Caesar responded, “Who said so?”
Bar Kamtza said, “Send them a sacrifice, and see if they will offer it.”
The Caesar sent (with Bar Kamtza) a healthy, unblemished ram. While going, Bar Kamtza caused a disfigurement in the animal. Some say that it was a blemish on the upper lip; others say that it was a blemish in the eye. In any case, a place where for us it is a disqualifying blemish while for the Romans, it is not.
The Rabbis had in mind to sacrifice it anyway to maintain peaceful relations with the government. But Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos objected, “People will say that animals with blemishes may be sacrificed on the altar!”
The Rabbis had in mind to kill Bar Kamtza so that he would not report what had happened to the Caesar but Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos objected, “People will say that one who makes blemishes in sacrifices is to be executed!”
Rabbi Yochanan said, “The excessive carefulness of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos destroyed our Temple, burned our palace and exiled us from our land.”
At the end of the section on the destruction of the Temple, there is a statement by Rabbi Elazar, as follows, “Come and see what is the tremendous negative impact of embarrassing someone, for Hashem helped Bar Kamtza and destroyed His House and burned His Palace.”
The Talmud in tractate Gittin paints an extremely bleak picture of the destruction, as the Romans besieged and ultimately destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. Rabbi Akiva could look at this devastation and see future glory. The Talmud relates that he and three of his colleagues gazed at the ruins of the Temple and they wept. As they wept, he laughed! He explained, “Just as I see the tragedies foretold by the prophets fully realized before my eyes, so I see in my mind’s eye the future realization of the prophecies of redemption that have been foretold!”
The Roman Siege of Jerusalem
When the Roman Emperor was convinced by Bar Kamtza that the Jews were mounting a rebellion, he sent against Jerusalem the great general Nero. As Nero approached, he tried to find out what God, in Whom he believed, wanted him to do. He shot an arrow to the east and it fell in the direction of Jerusalem. He shot another arrow to the west and it likewise fell in the direction of Jerusalem. He shot more arrows north and south and they all fell pointing in the direction of Jerusalem. He said to himself, “It must be that God Himself wants me to destroy His holy city.”
To confirm this, he asked a young child what verse he had learned in school that day. The child replied, “…And I will give over my vengeance against Edom (Rome) into the hands of Israel” (Yechezkel 25). Nero understood that God was using Rome as the tool to punish Israel but that in the end, He was still on the side of the Jews and would take drastic measures against Rome.
Nero said, “The Holy One, Blessed be He, wishes to destroy His House, and wants to use me to do that job, but He will ultimately punish me for doing that.” He dismounted, fled and converted to Judaism. From him descended the great sage Rabbi Meir.
Rome then sent Vespasian, who came with a great army. He besieged the city for three years.
In Jerusalem, there were three very wealthy men. Their names were Nakdimon ben Gurion, Ben Kalba Savua and Ben Tzitzis HaK’sas. They were called those names because the first meant that he so dominated the affairs of the city that it seemed as if “the sun shone for him.”
The second was called his name because he was so generous that anybody, even a dog, who entered his house hungry, would come out satisfied.
The third was called that because when he walked wearing his tzitzit (fringes), they would trail on cushions because he could afford to have his way padded by servants with cushions.
These loyal citizens of Jerusalem each made a promise to supply the city with a necessity of its survival for as long as the siege would last. One offered to provide wheat and barley, another to provide wine, salt and oil, and the third to provide wood for the duration of the siege. They could have supported the city for 21 years if not for subsequent events.
In the city there was also a group of people who wanted to fight the Romans, while the Rabbis wanted to negotiate with them. The Rabbis said to the militants, “Let us go outside and try to make peace with the Romans.” The militants said they would not allow it. They insisted on fighting even though the Rabbis assured them that it would be to no avail. To exclude other options and bring the matter to a head, the militants set fire to the stores of food, bringing famine upon the city.
One of the richest women in the city was named Marta, the daughter of Beitus. Following her normal routine, she sent her servant to purchase some fine flour. The servant searched high and low but was unable to find a crumb, which he reported to his mistress.
He told her that there had been a small quantity of a lesser flour still available. She told him, “Buy some for me at once!” By the time the servant reached the market, that too was gone.
“There’s still some ordinary flour!”
“Buy some for me!”
“There’s only barley flour left!”
“It’s all gone!”
Desperate, she put on her shoes and went out to look for food herself. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai applied to her the verse “The delicate among you, who had never before set foot on the ground…” (Devarim 28:56). Before Marta died, she had all her gold and silver thrown out in the streets, saying “What good do these do for me now?” Hearing this, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said, she is an example of “They throw their money out in the streets!” (Yechezkel 7:19).
Timeline of the Second Temple Era
Following is a brief history of major events between the destruction of the first Temple (circa 423 BCE) and the destruction of the second Temple (circa 68 CE). (Adapted from https://www.ou.org/holidays/chanukah/bayit_sheini_timeline/)
- 3338/423 BCE Destruction of First Temple and beginning of Babylonian Exile
- 3389/372 BCE Babylon falls to Medes and Persians under Darius the Mede and Cyrus the Great of Persia
- 3391/370 BCE Cyrus reigns, permits Jews to return to Israel
- 3408/353 BCE Darius the Persian permits Jews to rebuild Temple
- 3442/319 BCE Beginning of Greek era
- 3448/313 BCE Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty rules Israel
- 3562/199 BCE Antiochus III, scion of the Seleucid dynasty and ruler of Syria, wrests Israel from Egypt
- 3571/190 BCE Rome defeats Antiochus III at Magnesia
- 3586/175 BCE Antiochus IV reigns
- 3594/168 BCE Desecration of Temple by Antiochus
- 3597/165 BCE Conquest of Temple by Hasmoneans; the miracle of Chanukah
- 3598/163 BCE Antiochus IV dies
- 3599/162 BCE His son, Antiochus V, besieges Jerusalem
- 3600/161 BCE Demetrius I (son of Seleucus IV) rules; Alcimus appointed High Priest; defeat and death of Syrian general Nikanor (13 Adar)
- 3601 /160 BCE Judah Maccabee killed in battle; Jonathan elected leader of the Jewish rebellion
- 3602/159 BCE Alcimus dies
- 3609/152 BCE Alexander I, alleged son of Antiochus IV, contests rule of Demetrius I; both recognize Jonathan as High Priest
- 3610/151 BCE Alexander I rules
- 3614/147 B.C.E Alexander I deposed by Ptolemy IV, king of Egypt; Demetrius II rules
- 3617/144 BCE Tryphon deposes Demetrius II (who escapes), and rules on behalf of the infant Antiochus VI (son of Alexander I)
- 3619/142 BCE Tryphon tricks Jonathan and kills him; Simon takes over as High Priest, proclaims himself ‘Prince of the Jews’
- 3619/142 BCE Tryphon kills Antiochus VI and proclaims himself king
- 3621/140 BCE Sanhedrin and the people proclaim Simon ‘Prince of the Jews.’
- 3621-3725/140-36 BCE Rule of the Hasmonean dynasty (Simon, Yochanan Hyrkanos, Yehudah Aristobulus, Alexander Yannai, Queen Alexandra Hyrkanos and Aristobulus)
- 3630/131 BCE Yochanan Hyrkanos forms an alliance with Antiochus VII
- 3632/129 BCE Antiochus VII dies
- 3698/63 BCE Roman consul Pompei conquers Jerusalem
- 3725-3828/36 BCE-68 C.E. Rule of Herodian dynasty and Roman governors (Herod, Archelaus, Agrippa I and Roman governors)
- 3828/68 C.E. Destruction of Second Temple by Romans